FUELSPACE

FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

Amazon Founder is Developing a Natural Gas Rocket Engine

Blue Origin, the secretive spacecraft company founded by entrepreneur and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced today they will develop a liquefied methane rocket engine in partnership with the largest space launch provider in the US, the United Launch Alliance (ULA). This comes on the heels of similar news from SpaceX, the private space exploration firm founded by Elon Musk. SpaceX announced in April that they will begin testing liquid methane as a fuel for the next generation Raptor engine at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Raptor engine is anticipated to replace the current Merlin engine which powers the Falcon 9 rocket.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas Rocket

The United Launch Alliance Atlas Rocket

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft 

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft 

Methane rocket engines use high quality natural gas, which is refined into 99.9% pure liquid methane as the primary fuel. The methane is combined with liquid oxygen and burned in the thrust chamber of the rocket, producing the incredible lift required to escape Earth's gravity. Methane engines have numerous performance, storage and cost advantages over tradition RP-1 rocket fuel, which is made from Kerosene, a petroleum product. The fuel is also attractive because it can potentially be made from the atmosphere of Mars, eliminating the need to carry the fuel required for a return journey. 

NASA tested a liquid methane engine in partnership with XCOR in 2007, shown in the video below. The liquid methane for the NASA tests was provided by Clean Energy, a natural gas provider and cryogenics specialist based in Newport Beach, CA.  

This marks the first major partnership for Blue Origins, which has until now been a quiet player in the commercial space industry. The ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  Founded in 2006, the ULA operates the Atlas and Delta rockets and have launched a combined total of 1,300 missions. 

The official announcement can be found on the ULA website here.

Water, Oceans of Methane, and the Future of Rocket Fuel

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Water is really amazing.  It is one of the primary reasons we exist.  We need it to live, and many people need to live near it. it is one of our world engines, affecting almost everything we experience from weather to thirst to a relaxing bath.  It is absolutely essential to our species. 

Water is also essential to space exploration.  When searching for life elsewhere in the universe, we typically begin by searching for water.  It will satisfy the biological needs of astronauts. It can be used to shield us from cosmic radiation, to grow plants and food, and eventually produce rocket fuel.  Our current rockets utilize massive amounts of liquid propellant to escape the earth’s gravity well.  This means that launching from the planet’s surface is incredibly inefficient and very expensive.  As much as 90% of a rocket’s mass is the propellant, limiting the size of the payload it can actually deliver to space.  The solution to this problem is in-situ or space-based fuel production.   If we can develop the means to produce fuel in space, we can refuel spacecraft in orbit and eliminate the need to haul huge amounts of fuel from earth’s surface.  Producing fuel in this manner is one of the key strategies which will allow humans to become a spacefaring civilization.  This is also the exact business plan of one FuelSpace's favorite companies: Shackleton Energy.

Asteroids, comets, moons, and even the atmospheres of other planets are all sources of water that can be mined.  It is highly likely that the oceans of our own planet are a result of asteroid and comet strikes during the late heavy bombardment of earth.  During this period of time, Jupiter’s gravity created chaos in the asteroid belt and earth was bombarded by millions of asteroids, many containing huge amounts of water in the form of ice.  Many scientists now believe this is one of the primary reasons that our planet now holds so much water.  This means that asteroids were potentially the seeds for life here on earth.  

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A large asteroid can potentially hold more freshwater than is found on all of earth, making them extremely attractive targets for water mining.  Planetary moons can also hold an abundance of water.  Our own moon is thought to contain huge amounts of water in the form of ice sheltered in deep craters on the surface.  Such areas are never exposed to the sun and therefore contain vast quantities of minable ice.  Jupiter’s moon Europa has been one of the most attractive locations in the solar system in our search for life.  Europa took it a step further in 2013 by exposing her undergarmets. Scientists have discovered what they believe are huge geysers of liquid water on Europa.     

Water can also be found on planets, and not just in liquid form.  The atmospheres of some planets can be used to produce water.  Mars is the most likely candidate for human exploration in the near future, and the Martian atmosphere is primarily composed of carbon dioxide.  This carbon dioxide can be combined with a small amount of hydrogen brought from earth and, using basic chemical processes, can be used to produce methane and water. Both of which can then be utilized to produce rocket fuel. Here on Earth Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), which are powered by methane, are making huge inroads into the commercial fleet markets (trucking, mining, rail, marine, etc.) and rockets are next on the industry's hit list. Liquid methane rocket fuel is less expensive than traditional RP-1 which is derived from oil-based kerosene, and it is also highly abundant in space. In the future, one could easily fuel up liquid methane powered rockets on Saturn's moon Titan. The moon holds vast oceans of liquid methane which will eventually be tapped as a refueling depot.  Elon Musk's Rocket Wizards over at at SpaceX have mentioned Methane as a potential fuel for Mars missions, and next year will begin testing a liquid methane powered Raptor engine.   The Raptor will be designed as a higher thrust version of the Merlin engine line currently in production on the Falcon 9 rocket.   

Water is essential to human survival and will be an integral part of our expansion into space.  Lucky for us,  it is readily available and throughout our solar system, as long as we know where to look. 

Natural Gas Vehicles: 2013 Year in Review and What to Expect in 2014

                Waste Management CNG Garbage Truck

                Waste Management CNG Garbage Truck

The Golden Age of Gas is here to stay proclaims Forbes Magazine. Few will disagree that 2013 was a breakout year for the new premier fuel of the planet. This is no surprise, given the advances in extraction technologies pioneered here in the United States, and now making their way across the globe. Shale rocks formations are some of the most common on earth, meaning we are just now beginning one of the largest energy transitions in history. Here in the US, we continue to see massive reductions in our carbon output due to the transition away from coal fired power plants towards natural gas plants.  Market driven carbon reductions…yes please!

The Natural Gas Vehicle (NGV) industry has finally become a major contender to displace diesel fuel in the next decade.  Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)  are becoming the fuel of choice for commercial fleet operators.  CNG refuse trucks accounted for more than 51% of all new trucks ordered.  Meaning for the first time, CNG is no longer the “alternative” but rather the primary fuel of choice for trash fleets in the country. The over the road trucking industry, supported by the new 400 HP Cummins 12 Liter natural gas engine, jumped into the pool as well.  There were more natural gas powered trucks purchased this year than ever before. Infrastructure providers such as Clean Energy, Trillium, and Questar rolled out hundreds of new fueling stations around the Country, with many more on the way. 

We saw the birth of the new LNG powered Marine industry, with new fueling stations being developed at ports around the globe, and numerous LNG-powered ship orders being placed. The railroad industry also began their transition to LNG, and is now planning for the future with new liquefaction plants and fueling terminals across the country. 

Transient

Caterpillar, which has been eyeing the NGV industry for years, is finally making moves into the market.  The engine giant will be looking to develop high horsepower engine applications for offroad mining equipment.  The first LNG mining trucks will be deployed in Alberta, Canada.  

 So what can you expect in 2014? 

Ozinga' CNG Powered Ready-Mix Concrete Truck

Ozinga' CNG Powered Ready-Mix Concrete Truck

Expect to see further adoption of natural gas in all fleet applications.  Electric vehicles will continue their march into the consumer sector, but in the commercial fleet sector, natural gas will be the fuel of choice.   This will include big moves in marine, rail, trucking, trash, transit, as well as high mileage light and medium duty fleets.  The biggest transition will likely be in the construction services sector. With new engines and fuel tank configurations for ready mix concrete trucks, asphalt trucks, and sand and gravel hauling.  This will be the industry to watch in 2014. In addition to on-road  vehicles, the industry will have access to new off-road mining equipment that is now becoming available. Construction giants like Cemex, Vulcan, Martin Marietta, and Holcim will begin their transition to natural gas.  With both return to base fleet applications, high mileage hauling trucks, and a plethora of mining equipment at their aggregate plants, these companies will be well positioned to take full advantage of lower fuel costs to drive up profits, secure new customers with green trucks, and increase shareholder value.      

On the technology side, expect to see more investment flowing into Absorbed Natural Gas (ANG) fuel tank and storage technology. This has been the holy grail for of the NGV industry for some time.  ANG tanks can be formed into any shape or size, and store gas in a solid carbon honeycomb matrix, as opposed to a cryogenic liquid or pressurized gas.  If companies can bring flexible ANG fuel tanks that accept both CNG and LNG to market at cost competitive pricing, it will set the stage for a commercial fleet industry checkmate.